Tag Archives: critique group

In Search of the Perfect Critique Partners

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Today I’m joining the ranks for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. Thank you to IWSG for the opportunity to share and learn from your writerly experiences. We post the first Wednesday of the month, but I’m posting early due to family commitments. Check them out here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

A topic much on my mind lately is getting good-quality feedback on my writing. I’ve just finished another (hopefully final) polish of my second novel, and am starting another round of agent queries. It took bloody forever to work this manuscript through my critique group, since we’re only allowed to submit twenty pages per meeting. It’s a fair rule—we’d never get through a meeting otherwise.

I’ve been participating in the same critique group for over a year now, and their bi-monthly meetings are a highlight of my writing practice. It’s energizing to chat face-to-face with other writers. From them, I’ve received lots of valuable advice on refining my cozy mystery and women’s fiction novels. No one in my group writes in these genres, but that doesn’t disqualify them from critiquing my work; in fact, the best writing advice I’ve received so far has come from writers of historical fiction and sci-fi. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

I’ve also exchanged a few online critiques with members of the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association, and will continue to pursue that avenue. These readers understand the expectations of our shared genre, and a bonus is that some of these critiques come from published writers.

Here’s where the insecure bit comes in: I give more credence to advice from fiction writers whose work has been published, especially those who’ve been traditionally published.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there’s lots of very fine indie-published fiction out there—but the indie fiction I’ve sampled so far has mostly been clunky, unpolished, not enjoyable for a reader like me who expects that level of polish found in most traditionally-published fiction. And that level of polish is what I’m trying to achieve—not just good proofreading, but well-rounded, relatable characters wrapped up in a believable, non-rambling plot.

Back to my face-to-face critique group. Sure, it’s valuable to get feedback from all sorts of writers, and to see the evolution of their works in progress. We all have a great deal in common, and sharing the process of chiseling away the dross from a draft to reveal the gem inside—that’s a great learning opportunity for me.

But the limitations of this critique group are becoming hard to ignore. A few of our best writers have peeled off, dissatisfied with nature of the critiques. They tell me there’s too much nit-picking over mechanics and too little focus on plot, characters, pacing—the meat of the story.  They have a point.

Our group contains some die-hard writing-rule-evangelists. (One actually carries the Chicago Manual of Style to every meeting.) Oh, how these writers cling to their formulas, their cherished edicts about what one must and must not do in order to create a work of fiction. Here’s where I admit to being a retired high school English teacher. I have great respect for grammar, punctuation—all the tools we use to achieve clear communication. But oh, dear reader, there is much eye-rolling when these group members start spouting their rules for this and that aspect of writing fiction. And have these particular group members published anything? Not as far as I know. That doesn’t mean that they won’t, of course, but still…

Ugly thoughts, I know. And unfair—after all, I haven’t published anything yet either. When I finally do get my work published, whether traditionally or independently, it’ll have more to do with voice and storytelling than whether I’ve followed a certain formula or eliminated all my adverbs and exclamation points. A good storyteller can bend lots of rules and still delight her readers.

I don’t want to leave the security of my little critique group, but suspect it’s time to move beyond its secure borders. It’s time to look for more in-depth feedback than I can get twenty pages at a time. Wish me luck.

Writers’ Critique Group and Ageism

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“What I know now” is the theme for a writing contest I’ll be entering later this year. Interesting. I can write a short story, personal essay or poem. I’ll probably write one of each and bring them to my writers’ critique group to help me decide which to submit. I’ve learned a great deal from my critique group–about writing, and also about the human condition.

“Diversity” is a word that’s often slung around these days. Usually, it refers to ethnicity, and sometimes to sexual orientation or religion.  A community certainly benefits from diversity, be it a school, a business, or a neighborhood. We’re enriched by exposure to smart, kind, creative people who are different from us in some significant way—such exposure humanizes the “other” and chips away at prejudice. Besides, the world is in such a mess that we need everyone’s talents to patch it up–everyone’s, not just the members of our own tribe.

My writers’ critique group is diverse in the usual ways, but also in a way that’s particularly important to me: diversity of age. I’m young for a retiree, fifty-three, but am living that lifestyle thanks to some good fortune—and a lot of hard work, thank you very much. And I’m already encountering ageism in surprising places, as well as from the usual suspects: the beauty industry, the fashion industry, smug thirty-somethings who’ll never, ever be old.

But back to my critique group.  Lately, we’re about evenly split between young writers and older writers, which is really heartening in a culture that tends to self-segregate by age. We range from early twenties to early eighties. The group is open to new members, who come and go, with a handful of core members like me who usually show up. Sci-fi is probably the most popular genre in our group, evenly split between the young writers and the over-fifties. We also see historical fiction, folk tales, romance, contemporary fiction, military fiction, short stories, blog entries, poems… Sharing our works in progress teaches us about the common struggles of writers—and the feedback we give and receive increases all our knowledge about writing.

At the risk of generalizing, I’ve learned that most younger readers prefer stories with lots of tension up front, whereas older readers are willing to let the tension build more slowly as long as the concept and characters are interesting. I’ve learned that kind, perceptive insight can come from surprising sources. I’ve relearned the importance of making criticism more palatable by sliding in some praise, even if I have to look very hard to find something praiseworthy. (I knew this from my many years of teaching high school English, but one sometimes forgets.) Don’t get me wrong—most of the material I’ve seen in critique group is good, and much of it is excellent.

I’ve learned a lot about story structure by reading genres that I would not ordinarily choose to read. I’ve learned about tightening a narrative to make it more impactful. I’ve learned about publishing opportunities. And I’m heartened to meet smart, creative young people with a genuine interest in the world around them and the world of ideas. I know a lot about writing and language, but I don’t know it all, and these young writers are helping me to learn more. It would be ageist of me to dismiss their input simply because they’re less experienced: good story is good story, and smart is smart.

I won’t say that connecting with younger writers “keeps me young.” First of all, that’s a ridiculously ageist cliché based on the idea that young is good and old is bad, which is false. Young is good; old is good; middle-aged is good—any age a human being happens to be is good. Working closely with writers of different ages reminds me that, at heart, we’re all (writers and fictional characters) motivated by the search for excitement, challenge, achievement, and love. I hope, I believe, that the younger writers are also learning from us older ones—that we’re just as human as they, and just as interesting.